Dude, where’s my grant?

Any responder trying to buy a new HAZMAT suit, a new fire truck, a few interoperable radios to talk to the cops or any other piece of equipment for homeland security, knows the agony of waiting for a federal grant. The request is in, the paperwork is done, and there are reports of money being distributed—but where’s yours?
Given the still-disorganized state of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the slowness of its grantmaking process, much of the blame has been laid at the doorstep of its headquarters at Nebraska Ave. in Washington, DC.
Congress wants to see the cash too. After hearing the complaints, members of Congress commissioned a study of the grantmaking process from the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress’s auditing arm.
On May 13, William O. Jenkins, Jr., director of GAO Homeland Security and Justice Issues, reported to the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Building and Emergency Management.
The big revelation: It’s not all DHS’s fault.
In fact, according to the GAO and DHS’s own Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the funding flow picture is very complex—as are the reasons for its backup.
But first the good news: As slow as grant distribution is, it has picked up considerably in the last two years. “For example, for fiscal year 2002 grants, it took 292 days, on average, from the time the grant legislation was enacted to the awarding of grants to states. For fiscal year 2003 grants, the total cycle was reduced to 77 days, on average,” stated the OIG report.
But that’s hardly comforting if you’re still waiting for your grant.
Delays in distribution
Grants are distributed according to complex funding formulas and these contribute to the delays, the OIG and GAO found.
OIG determined that states and localities were slow to spend their funds while millions more sat in DHS bank accounts. But that is not the whole story. OIG also determined that the hotly contested formula imposed by Congress on DHS to use in calculating first responder grants—each state receives 0.75 percent of the total grant appropriation, with the remaining funds distributed according to state population—is seriously flawed and inefficient.
For all that, “statistics are somewhat misleading, and the spending picture is not as bad as it appears,” said the OIG. In some instances states and localities were still doing risk assessments, formulating strategies, and preparing detailed spending plans, believing that completing these first was necessary for prudent spending.
Having said that, improvements can be made.
“Delays in allocating grant funds to first responder agencies are frequently due to local legal and procedural requirements,” the OIG report found. In one city reviewed by the GAO, the city council took four months to vote to accept funds after being notified that they were available.
Both reports GAO reviewed found that state and local procurement processes have, in some cases, been affected by delays resulting from specific procurement requirements. While some states purchase first responder equipment centrally for all jurisdictions, in other instances, those purchases are made locally and procurement may be delayed by such factors as competitive bidding rules.
Delays are also caused by problems at the state level. In February, DHS Chief Tom Ridge testified that as much as $9 billion in grants awarded since 9/11 remained unspent and blamed the states for failing to distribute them. However, that money couldn’t be distributed until DHS approved their state spending strategies—and the deadline for submitting the state strategies kept being extended. Why? Because states were using different standards to formulate their strategies and identify vulnerabilities and even when they tried to file their plans online, computer glitches rendered the information unusable.
Relief on the way
The complaints from states and localities have been heard and both the executive and legislative branches are working to ease the flow of money to the responders who need it.
The OIG report recommended that the Office of Defense Preparedness (ODP) require more meaningful reporting by grantees and develop performance standards that can be used to measure the overall success of the grant programs; assist state planning efforts by accelerating the development of federal guidelines for first responder capabilities, equipment, training, and preparedness exercises; and work with grantees to identify and publicize best practices and strategies that speed spending.
In Congress, bills are now being considered to clear the clogged channels. In the Senate, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chair of the Governmental Affairs Committee, says her Homeland Security Grant Enhancement Act (S. 1245) will ensure that local governments and first responders receive funding in a timely fashion by holding states accountable, promoting more local input into the allocation of homeland security funding, and simplifying the application process.
In the House, Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, has introduced legislation, the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act (HR 3266), that would eliminate funding guarantees for states and alter the formula to place more emphasis on population, known threats and critical buildings.
Well aware of the unequal distribution of funds, DHS officials have begun to direct a greater share of grant money to urban areas. In 2004, about a quarter of the grants, or $894 million, went to urban areas. In 2005, urban areas will get 40 percent of all grant money, or $1.45 billion.
Analysis
Washington is aware of the problems facing funding distribution—not a small thing, given the spectrum of problems facing the federal government. Executive officials and members of Congress are taking different approaches but they share a common goal of revamping and expediting the distribution of funds. Given the threat of terrorism and the political pressure to do something in an election year, there’s a high probability that some form of legislation will be passed in this session of Congress. The biggest obstacle to that though, could be a nasty fight between lawmakers from rural states and states with large at-risk urban centers asboth seek their share of the pie.
Still, DHS is taking measures that don’t require legislation and responders should see at least some improvements in the grant distribution process in time for passage of the FY 2005 budget.  HST
The testimony of the GAO’s William Jenkins can be downloaded at: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04788t.pdf

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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